October 18th, 2022

Changing Systems to Improve Mental Health for Students with LD

By Stevie Mays

My depression is inherently entangled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Poor executive functioning makes completing tasks, especially self-care tasks, feel impossible. My life since college and post-grad, or as many millennials say, “adulting,” is arduous. My career is the classic COVID gig life—I work four different jobs ranging in hours of commitment and commute. I presumed this would have freed up my schedule to take more time committed to becoming organized, and man was that a misread on my part. I feel as though my body’s executive functioning can handle work, and I keep up my social life decently, but self-care is where I run out of spoons, a common analogy within the disability community.

My first depressive episode was in 8th grade. I attended private Catholic schools K-8th grade, and I loved the smaller class size experience and found the teachers had a personal investment in my success as a learning-disabled student and mutually entered the classroom with curiosity. In Michigan, there is a Catholic school entrance exam to attend. I received my typical accommodations and passed with flying colors. I toured my high school of choice with my cousin, who also attended the school. She felt cool, and I hoped to be as well. When I brought my test scores to a meeting with a school counselor, I recall tension on the car ride over with my parents.

I entered the meeting and discussed my extracurriculars and excitement about my acceptance to a travel softball team and my love of choir and science. I saw her pull out a yellow folder and open it. She looked at me and said, “so you have dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia.” I was speechless. My heart started pounding, even still 13 years later. My face turned beet red and hot. I looked at her and mumbled, “yes,” and she gave a painful smile.

My brain had a flood of thoughts. “What is all that?” “What is wrong with me?” I recall trying to recite exactly what she said in my head, so I could try to google it later. I later learned that dyslexia makes it very challenging to spell words I haven’t heard before. As my parent entered the room, the counselor said to my parents, “I am sorry, but we do not accept students with disabilities. Did you read our website?” My parents were stunned. My memory cuts off after this moment, and I forget exactly what words were exchanged.

Afterward, I attended public high school, where accommodations were later taken away in 10th grade. I can and will never forget how I felt leaving that meeting at the private school—a heaviness filled my body along with rejection, shame, helplessness, and loss of community. My family and community were Catholic at the time, and everyone I knew was attending a catholic high school, and I was an outsider. I felt stupid knowing my disability caused this. Students were being pushed out of private catholic schools, so students were likely not open about their learning disabilities. I felt isolated and alone. Later I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) from this meeting. I had daily intrusive thoughts about being dyslexic. Those thoughts scrolled through my brain nearly constantly for three years.

During my first two years in high school, I had barely above a 2.0 GPA, and I wouldn’t say I liked school. I hated being there, I hated having to complete my work, and I wanted to disengage completely. My mom recognized this as depression. I felt so low for so long that I assumed it was my new state of being.

Awareness of educational trauma and mental health is critical to prevent other students from suffering from deep depression. My brain will always have memories from that traumatic day, and I want educators and parents to understand ways to mitigate this experience from happening to other students.

I believe that success, enjoying learning, and fulfilling life are attainable for all LD people. It starts with acceptance and pride, which is critical from my perspective to thrive with an LD. We must celebrate our strengths, encourage our interests, and be gentle with ourselves —don’t add pressure on the more difficult tasks.

If you’re a student with LD or connect to someone with one, help us practice and work at things, and don’t add unnecessary stress or pressure. Do your best, and don’t worry about making all A’s— a few B’s, C’s, or even lower is acceptable occasionally. Sometimes it isn’t easy to meet the standard that year, and that’s okay; maybe in a few years, it will all click. Your grades and career do not determine one’s worth or value, and you are way more than your performance on an exam or job title.

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